Of course what happens on stage and in the pit are the most important elements of a night at the opera. However, the overall experience involves other elements and in this performance of WNO’s Rosenkavalier the composition and behaviour of the audience gave the performance a very particular feel.
Der Rosenkavalier is a very simple story: a teenage boy (Octavian) who has been having a fling with an older woman (The Marschallin) and a young girl (Sophie) intended for an older man (Baron Ochs) fall in love. The boy and girl try to outwit the older man and the older woman steps in, sorts it out and gives the young couple her blessing.
The more interesting themes of the work are the older woman’s neurosis with getting old and no longer being able to seduce younger men, old and bourgeois new money in Imperial Austro-Hungary, and the hypocrisy of manners.
So what has this to do with the audience at this performance, the final in Cardiff before the show goes to Birmingham (yes, only two venues – very typical WNO decadence)? Well, I have never seen such an elderly audience. I usually feel this is a silly concern, young people get older and if they are attracted to opera in later years so be it – I am not aware of vast sums of public money being spent trying to get septuagenarians to go to kids’ pop concerts. Opera audiences are older, get over it.
But then the behaviour of the audience and eavesdropped conversations explained the even greater than usual audience. Of course – this was the Cardiff Singer of the World audience decamped from St David’s Hall a mile down the road to WMC on their free evening before Sunday’s final. WNO Orchestra shares the concert rounds of this operatunity knocks with the BBC’s in-house orchestra. And the English contestant who had reached the final was singing in this production.
Relevance to this review? An elderly audience watches an opera about not being able to cope with growing old. They are watching an opera, an art form that relies on an elitist image to attract funding (fair enough from the corporates but also from public subsidy). It is a night off from a talent show featuring young people watched overwhelmingly by elderly people (and the relatively smaller number of people still of working age employed in the industry).
Then we have Strauss’ critique of class, snobbery, perceived elitism, faux cultural superiority and revels in delicious ironies. Hmm.
Well at least the production by Olivia Fuchs isn’t very demanding on the grey cells, taking a well-trodden TIME IS PASSING slap-you-in-the-face approach to the show. How many more times do we have to have an old woman wandering a stage looking back at her younger years? What could be a more obvious symbol of getting old than sand pouring onto the stage, and if that isn’t enough, the now frail and wrinkly Marschallin even gets out a sand timer. Agh! Are we really so thick we don’t get what librettist Hofmannsthal was telling us through the glorious singing of The Marschallin?
Lucia Cervoni and Rebecca Evans (top) and Louise Alder and Lucia Cervoni
Unfortunately, such is this unnecessary obsession the production fails miserably to show that other theme: social division and hypocrisy. On stage The Marschallin represents bloated Viennese society, using influence and money to get its own way, blind to the hypocrisy of its behaviour and lack of morality, disdain for the middle class Faninals but, as shown by its more boorish element, as represented by Baron Ochs, happy to take the dosh that comes from those awful people in trade. Yes, the costumes for the Viennese aristocrats differ from the more country-based Ochs household but the lazy use of one set simply swapped round a bit with more or less sand piled up throws away what should be a crucial element of any production. You might argue, ah yes but it is all inside the old woman’s room looking back at her life – but then why change the set at all? Costume designers clearly had a lot of fun creating Edwardian outfits but poor old Octavian, the Rosenkavalier, did look more like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz meeting Sophie who jumped around like an over-excited spoilt teenager at a X-Factor concert.
Enough of the production and that competition apart from, perhaps, how it again demonstrated that less really can be more and aptly illustrated, unintentionally, the disconnect between one large arts company and the BBC in Wales with the big outside world
Brindley Sherratt as a Baron Ochs with Peter Van Ulle and Madeleine Hall (top) and Lucia Cervoni
Thankfully the singers and musicians more than deliver on that investment.
The night belonged to the orchestra under the baton of new WNO music director Tomás Hanus and the splendid orchestra with a vivid and vibrant performance of Strauss’ sumptuous, elegant, intelligent, and occasionally witty and charming score. If only the production on stage had matched the perfection from the orchestra.
The zippy little Sophie von Faninal was sung with youthful passion and ardour by Louise Alder. Vocally as scrumptious as a slice of Sachertorte the soprano gave a totally engaging performance. As Octavian, Lucia Cervoni played along expertly with the comedy of the role, particularly when being a girl playing a boy playing a girl, the overtly sexual relationship with The Marschallin and enjoyable duets with Sophie.
Rebecca Evans’s role debut as The Marschallin is another feather in her well-plumed cap – and she does get the best costumes including a nice feathery hat. Rebecca continues to delight as a great national treasure, singing with exquisite gentility, luminosity and sagacity. From the Act One heartfelt introspection aria to the opening of that great trio as the opera comes to its conclusion (after a dreadful mess of a third act) Rebecca sings with control, insight and ravishing purity. The Grammy Award winning soprano continues to be Wales’ greatest female opera artist and an inspiration.
Special praise must go to the marvelous Brindley Sherratt as a Baron Ochs who transcended the usual brutish, ugly and ridiculous character and through sharp acting and perfect enunciation created possibly the most likeable and everyman character in the work.
Madeleine Shaw as Annina
Lucia Cervoni as Octavian
There are plenty of cameo roles in Rosenkavalier and here some were more satisfying than others, again usually I suspect because of the direction rather than individual artistry. Paul Charles Clarke as the Italian Singer and Madeleine Shaw as Annina were less hampered by this than others and the latter in particular deserves special mention.
This production has a decent enough show hidden inside; a revival director would be well advised to strip away the silly sand and leave out the old lady. The use of video could have been very effective, perhaps by changing the rather vague abstract flames, ice, dripping Persian rose oil etc. for images of the collapse of the transformation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the period that has (yet again) been chosen to set the work; fin de siecle into Secessionist and industrial society with the accompanying world of pretty chocolate box soldiers thrown into the horrors of mechanised war and the lost male, leaving a Europe of broken-hearted women in societies bereft of young men and ushering in dramatic social change and revolution. It is still the centenary of the First World War that destroyed the Marshallin’s world (and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and the actual 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution that changed the imperial world for ever.
Rebecca Evans as The Marschallin
This opera has some of the most sublime music and song written and with these singers and musicians Strauss was in secure hands. Productions come and go – I would just reintroduce the late 1980s production from the Swedish director Göran Järvefelt – but for our ear rather than eye this opera just about survives anything flavour of the month directors and commissioning companies throw at it. This is a likeable enough show made special by the artists.
You will need to travel to Birmingham Hippodrome to see the show now the small number of Cardiff performances have ended. wno.org.uk
Images: Bill Cooper